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The history of the United States Navy divides into two major periods: the "Old Navy", a small but respected force of sailing ships that was notable for innovation in the use of ironclads during the American Civil War, and the "New Navy", the result of a modernization effort that began in the 1880s and made it the largest in the world by 1943.
The United States Navy claims October 13, 1775 as the date of its official establishment, when the Second Continental Congress passed a resolution creating the Continental Navy. With the end of the American Revolutionary War, the Continental Navy was disbanded. Under the second President, John Adams, American merchant shipping came under threat while in the Mediterranean by Barbary pirates from four North African States. This led to the Naval Act of 1794, which created a permanent standing U.S. Navy. The original six frigates were authorized as part of the Act. Over the next 20 years, the Navy fought the French Republic Navy in the Quasi-War (1798–99), Barbary states in the First and Second Barbary Wars, and the British in the War of 1812. After the War of 1812, the U.S. Navy was at peace until the Mexican–American War in 1846, and served to combat piracy in the Mediterranean and Caribbean seas, as well as fighting the slave trade off the coast of West Africa. In 1845, the Naval Academy was founded at old Fort Severn at Annapolis, Maryland by the Chesapeake Bay. In 1861, the American Civil War began and the U.S. Navy fought the small Confederate States Navy with both sailing ships and new revolutionary ironclad ships while forming a blockade that shut down the Confederacy's civilian coastal shipping. After the Civil War, most of its ships were laid up in reserve, and by 1878, the Navy was just 6,000 men.
In 1882, the U.S. Navy consisted of many outdated ship designs. Over the next decade, Congress approved building multiple modern steel-hulled armored cruisers and battleships, and by around the start of the 20th century had moved from twelfth place in 1870 to fifth place in terms of numbers of ships. Most sailors were foreigners. After winning two major battles during the 1898 Spanish–American War, the American Navy continued to build more ships, and by the end of World War I had more men and women in uniform than the British Royal Navy. The Washington Naval Conference of 1921 recognized the Navy as equal in capital ship size to the Royal Navy, and during the 1920s and 1930s, the Navy built several aircraft carriers and battleships. The Navy was drawn into World War II after the Japanese Attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and over the next four years fought many historic battles including the Battle of the Coral Sea, the Battle of Midway, multiple naval battles during the Guadalcanal Campaign, and the largest naval battle in history, the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Much of the Navy's activity concerned the support of landings, not only with the "island-hopping" campaign in the Pacific, but also with the European landings. When the Japanese surrendered, a large flotilla entered Tokyo Bay to witness the formal ceremony conducted on the battleship Missouri, on which officials from the Japanese government signed the Japanese Instrument of Surrender. By the end of the war, the Navy had over 1,600 warships.
After World War II ended, the U.S. Navy entered the 45 year long Cold War and participated in the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the First Persian Gulf War, and the Second Persian Gulf War / Iraq War. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990–91, the Soviet Red Navy fell apart, which made the United States the world's undisputed naval superpower. Nuclear power and ballistic missile technology led to new ship propulsion and weapon systems, which were used in the Nimitz-class aircraft carriers and Ohio-class submarines. By 1978, the number of ships had dwindled to less than 400, many of which were from World War II, which prompted Ronald Reagan to institute a program for a modern, 600-ship Navy. Today, the United States is the world's undisputed naval superpower, with the ability to engage and project power in two simultaneous limited wars along separate fronts. In March 2007, the U.S. Navy reached its smallest fleet size, with 274 ships, since World War I. Former U.S. Navy admirals who head the U.S. Naval Institute have raised concerns about what they see as the ability to respond to 'aggressive moves by Iran and China.' The United States Navy was overtaken by the Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy in terms of raw number of ships in 2020.
Main article: United States Navy in World War II
After the disaster at Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt turned to the most aggressive sailor available, Admiral Ernest J. King (1878–1956). Experienced in big guns, aviation and submarines, King had a broad knowledge and a total dedication to victory. He was perhaps the most dominating admiral in American naval history; he was hated but obeyed, for he made all the decisions from his command post in the Washington, and avoided telling anyone. The civilian Secretary of the Navy was a cipher whom King kept in the dark; that only changed when the Secretary died in 1944 and Roosevelt brought in his tough-minded aide James Forrestal. Despite the decision of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Admiral William D. Leahy to concentrate first against Germany, King made the defeat of Japan his highest priority. For example, King insisted on fighting for Guadalcanal despite strong Army objections. His main strike force was built around carriers based at Pearl Harbor under the command of Chester Nimitz. Nimitz had one main battle fleet, with the same ships and sailors but two command systems that rotated every few months between Admiral Bull Halsey and Admiral Raymond A. Spruance. The Navy had a major advantage: it had broken the Japanese code. It deduced that Hawaii was the target in June 1942, and that Yamamoto's fleet would strike at Midway Island. King only had four carriers in operation; he sent them all to Midway where in a miraculous few minutes they sank the Japanese carriers. This gave the Americans the advantage in firepower that grew rapidly as new American warships came on line much faster than Japan could build them. King paid special attention to submarines to use against the overextended Japanese logistics system. They were built for long-range missions in tropical waters, and set out to sink the freighters, troop transports and oil tankers that held the Japanese domains together. The South West Pacific Area, based in Australia, was under the control of Army General Douglas MacArthur; King assigned him a fleet of his own under Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid, without any big carriers.
On December 7, 1941, Japan's carriers launched the Attack on Pearl Harbor, sinking or disabling the entire battleship fleet. The stupendous defeat forced Admiral King to develop a new strategy based on carriers. Although the sunken battleships were raised, and many new ones were built, battleships played a secondary role in the war, limited chiefly to bombardment of islands scheduled for amphibious landings. The "Big Gun" club that had dominated the Navy since the Civil War lost its clout.
The U.S. was helpless in the next six months as the Japanese swept through the Western Pacific and into the Indian Ocean, rolling up the Philippines as well as the main British base at Singapore. After reeling from these defeats the Navy stabilized its lines in summer 1942.
At the start of the war, the United States and Japan were well matched in aircraft carriers, in terms of numbers and quality, but the Mitsubishi A6M Zero carrier fighter plane was superior in terms of range and maneuverability to its American counterpart, the F4F Wildcat. By reverse engineering a captured Zero, the American engineers identified its weaknesses, such as inadequate protection for the pilot and the fuel tanks, and built the Hellcat as a superior weapon system. In late 1943 the Grumman F6F Hellcats entered combat. Powered by the same 2,000 horsepower Pratt and Whitney 18-cylinder radial engine as used by the F4U Corsair already in service with the Marine Corps and the UK's allied Fleet Air Arm, the F6Fs were faster (at 400 mph) than the Zeros, quicker to climb (at 3,000 feet per minute), more nimble at high altitudes, better at diving, had more armor, more firepower (6 machine guns fired 120 bullets per second) than the Zero's two machine guns and pair of 20 mm autocannon, carried more ammunition, and used a gunsight designed for deflection shooting at an angle. Although the Hellcat was heavier and had a shorter range than the Zero, on the whole it proved a far superior weapon. Japan's carrier and pilot losses at Midway crippled its offensive capability, but America's overwhelming offensive capability came from shipyards that increasingly out produced Japan's, from the refineries that produced high-octane gasoline, and from the training fields that produced much better trained pilots. In 1942 Japan commissioned 6 new carriers but lost 6; in 1943 it commissioned 3 and lost 1. The turning point came in 1944 when it added 8 and lost 13. At war's end Japan had 5 carriers tied up in port; all had been damaged, all lacked fuel and all lacked warplanes. Meanwhile, the US launched 13 small carriers in 1942 and one large one; and in 1943 added 15 large and 50 escort carriers, and more arrived in 1944 and 1945. The new American carriers were much better designed, with far more antiaircraft guns, and powerful radar.
Both sides were overextended in the exhaustive sea, air and land battles for Guadalcanal. The Japanese were better at night combat (because the American destroyers had only trained for attacks on battleships). However, the Japanese could not feed its soldiers so the Americans eventually won because of superior logistics. The Navy built up its forces in 1942–43, and developed a strategy of "island-hopping, that is to skip over most of the heavily defended Japanese islands and instead go further on and select islands to seize for forward air bases.
In the Atlantic, the Allies waged a long battle with German submarines which was termed the Battle of the Atlantic. Navy aircraft flew from bases in Greenland and Iceland to hunt submarines, and hundreds of escort carriers and destroyer escorts were built which were specifically designed to protect merchant convoys. In the Pacific, in an ironic twist, the U.S. submarines fought against Japanese shipping in a mirror image of the Atlantic, with German submarines hunting U.S. merchant ships. At the end of the war the U.S. had 260 submarines in commission. It had lost 52 submarines during the war, 36 in actions in the Pacific. Submarines effectively destroyed the Japanese merchant fleet by January 1945 and choked off Japan's oil supply.
In the summer of 1943, the U.S. began the Gilbert and Marshall Islands campaign to retake the Gilbert and Marshall Islands. After this success, the Americans went on to the Mariana and Palau Islands in summer 1944. Following their defeat at the Battle of Saipan, the Imperial Japanese Navy's Combined Fleet, with 5 aircraft carriers, sortied to attack the Navy's Fifth Fleet during the Battle of the Philippine Sea, which was the largest aircraft carrier battle in history. The battle was so one-sided that it became known as the "Marianas turkey shoot"; the U.S. lost 130 aircraft and no ships while the Japanese lost 411 planes and 3 carriers. Following victory in the Marianas, the U.S. began the reconquest of the Philippines at Leyte in October 1944. The Japanese fleet sortied to attack the invasion fleet, resulting in the four-day Battle of Leyte Gulf, one of the largest naval battles in history. The first kamikaze missions were flown during the battle, sinking USS St. Lo and damaging several other U.S. ships; these attacks were the most effective anti-ship weapon of the war.
The Battle of Okinawa became the last major battle between U.S. and Japanese ground units. Okinawa was to become a staging area for the eventual invasion of Japan since it was just 350 miles (560 km) south of the Japanese mainland. Marines and soldiers landed unopposed on April 1, 1945, to begin an 82-day campaign which became the largest land-sea-air battle in history and was noted for the ferocity of the fighting and the high civilian casualties with over 150,000 Okinawans losing their lives. Japanese kamikaze pilots inflicted the largest loss of ships in U.S. naval history with the sinking of 36 and the damaging of another 243. Total U.S. casualties were over 12,500 dead and 38,000 wounded, while the Japanese lost over 110,000 men, making Okinawa one of the bloodiest battles in history.
The fierce fighting on Okinawa is said to have played a part in President Truman's decision to use the atomic bomb and to forsake an invasion of Japan. When the Japanese surrendered, a flotilla of 374 ships entered Tokyo Bay to witness the ceremony conducted on the battleship USS Missouri. By the end of the war the US Navy had over 1200 warships, surpassing the size of the Royal Navy.
Main article: Cold War
The immediate postwar fate of the Navy was the scrapping and mothballing of ships on a large scale; by 1948 only 267 ships were active in the Navy. In 1948 the Women's Armed Services Integration Act gave women permanent status in the Regular and Reserve forces of the Navy.
Main article: Revolt of the Admirals
The military services were unified in 1947 over the strong objections of Navy Secretary James Forrestal. President Truman appointed him Secretary of Defense, but the two disagreed over budgets and Truman fired him in 1949 when Forrestal took the Navy's side in a public protest against White House policy known as the Revolt of the Admirals. A basic political problem was that the Secretary of Defense did not fully control the budgets of the three services. Each one worked with powerful Congressmen to enhance their budgets despite the White House determination to hold down spending. In 1948–49 the "Revolt of the Admirals" came when a number of retired and active-duty admirals publicly disagreed with President Truman and with his replacement for Forrestal Louis A. Johnson because they wanted less expensive strategic atomic bombs delivered by the Air Force. Forrestal had supported the Navy position and had obtained funding for an aircraft carrier from Congress. Truman fired Forrestal, and Johnson cancelled the carrier and announced plans to move Marine Corps aviation out of the Navy and into the Air Force. During Congressional hearings public opinion shifted strongly against the Navy. In the end the Navy kept Marine aviation and eventually got its carrier, but its revolting admirals were punished and it lost control over strategic bombing. The Truman administration essentially defeated the Revolt, and civilian control over the military was reaffirmed. Military budgets following the hearings prioritized the development of Air Force heavy bomber designs, accumulating a combat ready force of over 1,000 long-range strategic bombers capable of supporting nuclear mission scenarios.
The Navy gradually developed a reputation for having the most highly developed technology of all the U.S. services. The 1950s saw the development of nuclear power for ships, under the leadership of Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, the development of missiles and jet aircraft for Navy use and the construction of supercarriers. USS Enterprise was the world's first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and was followed by the Nimitz-class supercarriers. Ballistic missile submarines grew ever more deadly and quiet, culminating in the Ohio-class submarines. Rickover had a strong base of support in Congress and in public opinion, and he forced nuclear power to be a high Navy priority, especially for submarines. Combined with missile technology, this gave the United States the assured second-strike capability that was the foundation of deterrence against the Soviet Union.
Tension with the Soviet Union and China came to a head in the Korean War, and it became clear that the peacetime Navy would have to be much larger than ever imagined. Fleets were assigned to geographic areas around the world, and ships were sent to hot spots as a standard part of the response to the periodic crises. However, because the North Korean navy was not large, the Korean War featured few naval battles; the combatant navies served mostly as naval artillery for their in-country armies. A large amphibious landing at Inchon succeeded in driving the North Koreans back across the 38th parallel. The Battle of Chosin Reservoir ended with the evacuation of almost 105,000 UN troops from the port of Hungnam.
The U.S. Navy's 1956 shipbuilding program was significant because it included authorization for the construction of eight submarines, the largest such order since World War II. This FY-56 program included five nuclear-powered submarines – Triton, the guided missile submarine Halibut, the lead ship for the Skipjack class, and the final two Skate-class attack submarines, Sargo and Seadragon. It also included the three diesel-electric Barbel class, the last diesel-electric submarines to be built by the U.S. Navy.
An unlikely combination of Navy ships fought in the Vietnam War 1965–72; aircraft carriers offshore launched thousands of air strikes, while small gunboats of the "brown-water navy" patrolled the rivers. Despite the naval activity, new construction was curtailed by Presidents Johnson and Nixon to save money, and many of the carriers on Yankee Station dated from World War II. By 1978 the fleet had dwindled to 217 surface ships and 119 submarines.
Meanwhile, the Soviet fleet had been growing, and outnumbered the U.S. fleet in every type except carriers, and the Navy calculated they probably would be defeated by the Soviet Navy in a major conflict. This concern led the Reagan administration to set a goal for a 600-ship Navy, and by 1988 the fleet was at 588, although it declined again in subsequent years. The Iowa-class battleships Iowa, New Jersey, Missouri, and Wisconsin were reactivated after 40 years in storage, modernized, and made showy appearances off the shores of Lebanon and elsewhere. In 1987 and 1988, the United States Navy conducted various combat operations in the Persian Gulf against Iran, most notably Operation Praying Mantis, the largest surface-air naval battle since World War II.
When a crisis confronts the nation, the first question often asked by policymakers is: 'What naval forces are available and how fast can they be on station?'
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Soviet Navy fell apart, without sufficient personnel to man many of its ships or the money to maintain them—indeed, many of them were sold to foreign nations. This left the United States as the world's undisputed naval superpower. U.S. naval forces did undergo a decline in absolute terms but relative to the rest of the world, however, United States dwarfs other nations' naval power as evinced by its 11 aircraft supercarriers and their supporting battle groups. During the 1990s, the United States naval strategy was based on the overall military strategy of the United States which emphasized the ability of the United States to engage in two simultaneous limited wars along separate fronts.
The ships of the Navy participated in a number of conflicts after the end of the Cold War. After diplomatic efforts failed, the Navy was instrumental in the opening phases of the 1991 Gulf War with Iraq; the ships of the navy launched hundreds of Tomahawk II cruise missiles and naval aircraft flew sorties from six carriers in the Persian Gulf and Red Sea. The battleships Missouri and Wisconsin fired their 16-inch guns for the first time since the Korean War on several targets in Kuwait in early February. In 1999, hundreds of Navy and Marine Corps aircraft flew thousands of sorties from bases in Italy and carriers in the Adriatic against targets in Serbia and Kosovo to try to stop the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. After a 78-day campaign Serbia capitulated to NATO's demands.
As a result of a large number of command officers being fired for failing to do their job properly, in 2012 the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) ordered a new method of selecting command officers across the Navy.
In March 2007, the U.S. Navy reached its smallest fleet size, with 274 ships, since World War I. Since the end of the Cold War, the Navy has shifted its focus from preparations for large-scale war with the Soviet Union to special operations and strike missions in regional conflicts. The Navy participated in the Iraq War and is a major participant in the ongoing War on Terror, largely in this capacity. Development continues on new ships and weapons, including the Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carrier and the Littoral combat ship. One hundred and three U.S. Navy personnel died in the Iraq War. U.S. Navy warships launched cruise missiles into military targets in Libya during Operation Odyssey Dawn to enforce a UN resolution.
Former U.S. Navy admirals who head the U.S. Naval Institute have raised concerns about what they see as the ability to respond to "aggressive moves by Iran and China". As part of the pivot to the Pacific, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said that the Navy would switch from a 50/50 split between the Pacific and the Atlantic to a 60/40 percent split that favored the Pacific, but the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Jonathan Greenert, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, have said that this would not mean "a big influx of troops or ships in the Western Pacific". This pivot is a continuation of the trend towards the Pacific that first saw the Cold War's focus against the Soviet Union with 60 percent of the American submarine fleet stationed in the Atlantic shift towards an even split between the coasts and then in 2006, 60 percent of the submarines stationed on the Pacific side to counter China. The pivot is not entirely about numbers as some of the most advanced platforms will now have a Pacific focus, where their capabilities are most needed. However even a single incident can make a big dent in a fleet of modest size with global missions.
On January 12, 2016, Iranian armed forces captured ten Navy personnel when their two boats entered Iranian territorial waters off the coast of Farsi Island in the Persian Gulf. They were released the next day following diplomatic discussions between the U.S. and Iran.
In mid-2017, two Navy ships, USS Fitzgerald and USS John S. McCain, were involved in collisions with merchant ships during regular transits that resulted in fatalities.
In 2020, the United States Navy was overtaken by the Chinese Navy in terms of raw number of ships. The United States had previously held the title of largest navy since it overtook the Royal Navy in 1943.